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Kennedy Ryan's romances are coming for your heartstrings

Romance writer Kennedy Ryan made history in 2019 as the first Black author to win one of the most prestigious romance fiction prizes — the RITA Award in the <a href="">Best Contemporary Romance: Long</a> category, for <em>Long Shot</em>.
Kennedy Ryan
Romance writer Kennedy Ryan made history in 2019 as the first Black author to win one of the most prestigious romance fiction prizes — the RITA Award in the Best Contemporary Romance: Long category, for Long Shot.

Romance books all have one thing in common: A "Happily Ever After." And Kennedy Ryan's love stories are packed with scenes of friendship and spicy sex along the way.

But the impulse that drives her to write them is darker.

"My books come from indignation," the author told NPR in an interview. "From female rage."

With mainstream publisher Bloom Books reissuing five of her previously self-published titles starting later this month, and a TV series based on another one of her books now in development through Peacock, Ryan's high-emotional-stakes romances are poised to reach a wider audience.

Often, it'll be something in the news that grabs Ryan's attention, such as an incident, which went viral on social media, involving a professional footballer attacking his girlfriend in an elevator. That inspired Ryan's novel about domestic abuse set in the world of pro sports, Long Shot. Similarly, footage of the 2016 Dakota Pipeline Protest kickstarted her novel The Kingmaker. The book, which explores climate change and indigenous land rights, is the first Bloom Books is scheduled to release, on May 23.

"So many people are saying that climate change is not real, and I wanted to see a hero who was passionate about it," Ryan said. "I just hadn't seen that in romance."

Emotional journeys

The author spins out this intense, real-life source material into fictions full of joy and angst. Bestselling romance author Jasmine Guillory said the hard-won happy ending is what makes Ryan's books so bingeable.

"Romance readers love to know that they're gonna go through some hard times," Guillory said. "But they're going to really appreciate it in the end."

Ryan's fans concur.

"She pulls on my heartstrings," said reader Himeko de Guzman. The Los Angeles resident was standing in a long line under the hot sun patiently waiting to meet Ryan, one of her favorite authors, at the 2023 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. "I end up crying every time I read her."

Tiffiny Hargrave and Himeko de Guzman wait in line to meet Kennedy Ryan at the 2023 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
/ Chloe Veltman/NPR
Chloe Veltman/NPR
Tiffiny Hargrave and Himeko de Guzman wait in line to meet Kennedy Ryan at the 2023 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

But quite a few of the people standing in line that day, including De Guzman's friend Tiffiny Hargrave, hadn't cracked open any of Ryan's books yet. They were there through word of mouth.

"I don't know what I'm getting into," Hargrave said. "But I'm sure it's gonna be great."

Ryan spent quite a bit of time warning her new readers about what to expect.

"I just want you to know, there is a content warning at the beginning," said the author, wearing a grass-green dress and gold floral earrings, in between autographing books and giving out hugs.

From rule-breaking to research

In addition to taking readers on a hot-blooded emotional journey, Ryan stands out because she's unafraid to bend the rules of the genre.

/ Hachette Book Group
Hachette Book Group

"'Marriage in Trouble' is a trope that we have in romance, right? But, 'Marriage is Over'? That is not a trope we have in romance, really," said romance critic and co-host of the popular weekly podcast Fated Mates, Jennifer Prokop, of Before I Let Go, Ryan's 2022 novel that's being adapted for TV. It focuses on a couple that's already gotten divorced. "I think there is something to be said for someone really who can break a romance rule, and make us still buy it."

Divorce isn't something Ryan has dealt with in her own life. The writer said she and the man who would eventually become her husband met right out of college. They recently celebrated their 26th wedding anniversary.

"He's just the best partner ever," she said. "People ask: 'How do you write these amazing heroes who are so compassionate and kind?' It comes from having those kinds of men in my life, and my husband is chief in that."

Ryan writes so compellingly on topics outside of her own experience — sometimes way outside — because she approaches her task like she's an investigative journalist.

"I don't know that I have ever met a romance writer who does, book for book, the amount of research and character work that Kennedy does," said best-selling romance novelist Sarah MacLean, the other co-host of the Fated Mates podcast.

Andrea LeBeau helped Kennedy Ryan develop her novel<em> The Kingmaker.</em>
/ Andrea LeBeau
Andrea LeBeau
Andrea LeBeau helped Kennedy Ryan develop her novel The Kingmaker.

In the process of developing her tempestuous novel The Kingmaker, for instance, in which a Native American activist and the heir to a giant fossil fuel corporation fall madly in love, Ryan said her research involved speaking with several indigenous women.

Andrea LeBeau, a member of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation in Arizona and a romance fan, was among those Ryan connected with via Facebook.

"I rarely see Native American heroes or heroines in romance books," LeBeau said. "So I was equal parts exhilarated and scared to be honest, because there's a lot of harm that could be done with writing a culture that's not your own."

Ryan comes from a very different background than that of the indigenous heroine she created for The Kingmaker: She's Black, was brought up by church pastors in North Carolina, and has mostly lived in big urban centers like San Diego and Atlanta.

LeBeau said she shared her experiences of reservation life with the novelist, put her in touch with other sources and provided feedback on the manuscript. "I wanted her to get it right as closely as she could, without overstepping," LeBeau said.

A 'white-cis-het' space

Like LeBeau, Ryan, who's 50, didn't see her own identity reflected in the romance space when she was growing up in the 1980s and 90s.

"The thing about romance, at that point, it was so white-cis-het," Ryan said. "There weren't a lot of options that were diverse."

Kennedy Ryan at the 2023 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
/ Kennedy Ryan
Kennedy Ryan
Kennedy Ryan at the 2023 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

On top of that, she had to keep her interest in the genre under wraps. Ryan said her mom wouldn't allow titles by bestselling authors like Kathleen Woodiwiss or Johanna Lindsey inside the house.

"I would hide them under my mattress and I would tuck them in the back of my closet," Ryan said. "And that went on for years."

Ryan said she let her romance habit go for a while. But in her 30s, she found her way back to it when she hit a rough patch in her life. She was feeling overwhelmed — juggling public relations and journalism gigs, running an autism non-profit, and parenting an autistic son. She said these were dark times, foreshadowing the depression she was diagnosed with years later.

"I needed something kind of for myself," said Ryan, of her decision to start reading romance again. "And then I was like, 'I think I wanna give writing a try.'"

A step toward diversity

/ Bloom Books
Bloom Books

In 2019, Ryan made history as the first Black author to win one of the most prestigious romance fiction prizes — the RITA Award in the Best Contemporary Romance: Long category, for Long Shot. In her acceptance speech, Ryan didn't shy away from talking about the romance industry's entrenched diversity problem.

"For me to stand here in this moment, it's so much bigger than me," Ryan said from the podium. "I think everybody knows that it's so much bigger than my book. It's so much bigger than my night. It's 37 years waiting for someone who looked like me to stand here. It is spectacularly overdue."

Veteran romance writer Beverly Jenkins was in the audience for the occasion.

"Very, very proud of her that night," said Jenkins of Ryan's win, in an interview with NPR.

Jenkins is a trailblazer herself, as one of the first Black romance authors to find mainstream success, back in the mid 1990s. Jenkins said Ryan's win was a small step towards the greater inclusivity we're seeing in romance publishing today.

"You got writers who are writing queer. You've got South Asian heroes and heroines. You have men writing, trans people writing," Jenkins said. "But of course the industry can do more."

According to data shared with NPR by publishing industry tracker Circana Bookscan (formerly NPD Bookscan), the top white romance authors still sell hundreds of thousands more print copies than their best-selling, non-white counterparts.

"The Big Five publishers have oftentimes put Black or Hispanic romance into its own imprint and consider it a separate smaller category," said Circana Bookscan chief analyst Kristen McLean. "And so it has been treated historically as sort of a sidebar to the main romance event."

But sales of Ryan's books and other titles by diverse authors have grown exponentially over the past few years, owing to more mainstream interest in the romance genre and a demand for greater diversity among younger readers.

"One of the benefits of the post-Black Lives Matter period of the last couple of years is that we're seeing overall a rise in interest in books by authors of color," said McLean.

It's been a long journey for Ryan. The author said things are now changing in her life — for the better.

"My little pod is my husband, my son, and me. And for so long, it felt like us against the world," Ryan said. "And now it's feeling like the world is for us. It feels like my own hard-won happily ever after."

Audio and digital stories edited by Meghan Sullivan. Audio produced by Isabella Gomez-Sarmiento.

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Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.